Around the Press in 80 Books: Dixie Bohemia

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Managing Editor Lee Sioles writes about Dixie Bohemia.

ReedDIXIE_jktfrontIn the years following World War I, the New Orleans French Quarter was an exciting and exotic place to live. Its low rents and colorful street life attracted artists and writers, and by the 1920s Jackson Square had become the center of a vibrant bohemia—a sort of Creole version of Paris’s Left Bank.

There, a young, unknown William Faulkner roomed with an artist named William Spratling, and the two of them hung out with a circle of artists and eccentrics, ranging from the distinguished playwright Sherwood Anderson to a crew of talented­—or, if not talented, at least amusing—writers, painters, teachers, showgirls, actors, Quakers, clubwomen, archeologists, poets (some of them “bad ones”), suffragettes, Taoists, stockbrokers, debutantes and “avid dancers,” cartoonists, historic preservationists, advice columnists, newspapermen—and assorted hangers-on.

A charming and insightful glimpse into this dazzling and long-forgotten world, John Shelton Reed’s, Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s makes perfect bedtime reading. You can dip in and sample the often-bizarre life story of a bohemian or two at a time, reveling in Reed’s polished prose and witty descriptions.

There is Louis Andrews Fischer, a gender-bending designer, who made an “only-in-New Orleans” career of hosting wild parties and designing cross-dressing Mardi Gras costumes that “turned New Orleans businessmen” into “Southern belles in hoop skirts.” Or you can read about Weeks Hall, a “deeply strange” artist obsessed with restoring his decayed family plantation, Shadows-on-the-Teche. (More than one overnight guest found “something terribly wrong” both with the gloomy plantation and with their host, as he stood by the fireplace silently stroking his pet macaw, while his features “seemed to be decomposing” through a “haze of absinthe.”)

Of course, best of all is the rare portrait of a silent, disheveled 29-year-old, who was “not yet William Faulkner.” This “strange young man,” who “said very little and drank very much” had “yet to publish anything of great importance.” Silent among strangers, Faulkner was given to telling giant fibs about himself to friends. Sometimes he posed as an ex–British RAF officer­—with a cane, a limp, and a clipped English accent—who drank heavily to ease the pain of his “war wounds.” Other times he pretended to be a drawling Mississippi planter-aristocrat and told tales of his “people” back home.

Faulkner came to NOLA as a poet but, under Anderson’s influence, began writing fiction. “Every morning, in the afternoon, late at night,” people saw him “out on the balcony with a drink, banging away on a typewriter.” It’s a French Quarter picture I’ll never forget. . . .

Faulkner left the city after 16 months and never came back but told a friend years later, “I had more fun there than I ever had and ever will have again anywhere now.”

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